White Supremacism as Meme: How Reddit is Breeding a New Generation of Violent Racism

“4chan is leaking.” This is what users of the link sharing website Reddit say when they see a certain sort of comment, typically a personal anecdote that begins plausibly but rapidly escalates into the outlandish and the perverse. It is a style characteristic of some of the message boards of 4chan, a more insular online forum whose community is drawn towards entertainment of the more shocking and/or titillating variety. To say that 4chan is leaking is to identify a Redditor as being a member of both communities, a dual citizen who carries to Reddit the distinctive discourse of 4chan.

If 4chan leaks then Reddit floods. In Facebook statuses, comment sections, and twitter streams the signifiers of Reddit abound, proliferated by its users. Sometimes it is the signature constellation of interests and topics that reveal a Redditor. She might be relaying some pithy slogan about the importance of digital freedom, the cultural significance of bacon, or the deeply flawed nature of Internet Explorer. Or she might be saying “For science!” or “tl;dr…” or “So brave!” or “I see what you did there!” or “I, for one, welcome our new _____ overlords,” or “Shut up and take my money!” or “An’ Frankly, I did Nazi that coming!” or “Faith in humanity restored!” or any of the other phrases peculiar to Reddit.

It is a strange feature of human sociality that a person’s online activity is revealed in her speech. We conceive of ourselves as free agents, yet channel the expressions and ideas of our associates to the point where our words serve as recognizable signs of group membership. In such communal expressions we see that culture is not merely an explanation for the strangeness of distant others, but, rather, is something universal, manifested in all of us.

But how does the community come to modify and inflect our behavior in this way? The answer lies in the iconography of Reddit, the pictures and bold white capital letters of the Internet meme. In the context of the Internet, a meme is an image or type of image accompanied by a caption that follows a formula particular to the meme. The classic example is the lolcat, a meme wherein text is superimposed over a picture of a cat to describe its present state from its own, half-witted perspective: “I can has prom date?” asks the kitten wearing the bow tie.

(Image source)

On Reddit, visitors will see more contemporary memes, ones particular to the site. Inarticulate cats have been replaced by a set of characters that pass on bits of Reddit conventional wisdom via macro text. Some relay explicit advice while others pick out everyday moments that are common but not often discussed, the airing of which lets viewers feel a shared sense of experience. It’s a new package on an old tradition, the latest not-so-funny reincarnation of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed…” monologues. More importantly, these images embody Reddit’s close association with “memes” as understood in a more technical sense: ideas (or behavior) that replicates through non-genetic transmission.

Reddit is an ideal platform for meme transmission. According to a recent Pew Poll, six percent of all American adults who use the Internet are Reddit users. This sizable audience represents an army of potential hosts for memes—a potential that is readily converted into actualized adoption and propagation via the participatory nature of Reddit. By having the audience contribute all of its content, Reddit encourages people to not merely consume its devices and truisms but to adopt them as their own, to internalize and redisseminate them like an animal regurgitating a recent meal so as to eat it again.

 

(Image source)

 

This recursive process is powered by a democratic points system wherein Redditors are awarded “karma” for each “upvote” that their submitted content receives. Content that draws a high number of upvotes will then float to the top of the site, giving it greater visibility. Through this system, Redditors are incentivized to post the content that they believe will garner upvotes—and the surest method for achieving this end is to mimic what has been successful in the past.

 

(Image source)

The most brazen form of content mimesis is the “repost,” where a Redditor resubmits someone else’s highly-upvoted content in the hope that it will be highly-upvoted once again. Beyond this blatant duplication, however, there are countless shades of karma-seeking imitation, ranging from the repackaging of a popular idea to the use of a popular package for a new idea. Thus, while only a few users resort to exact imitation, Reddit nonetheless ends up filled with the repeated catchphrases and concepts of the meme.

The spread of such concepts beyond the parameters of Reddit reflects the platform’s unparalleled ability to incubate memes. With its millions of users, the site has a huge pool of contributing talent to generate the content from which a meme might emerge. At the same time, the voting system provides users with near-instant feedback, allowing them to refine their submissions and perfect their intuitive sense of what will go viral. And, since the most popular content also becomes the most visible, users are provided with a gold standard to mimic and draw upon for inspiration. This combination results in a site capable of churning out highly-seductive and transmissible catchphrases—ones so powerful that they have spread far beyond the boundaries of Reddit to the anglophonic culture at large.

Indeed, the memes of Reddit are bred so strong that they easily displace locally-grown culture, filling up individuals’ cultural vocabularies at the expense of their own unique or subcultural expressions and ideas. The result is a striking homogenization of culture wherein New York Times columnists parrot the idioms of webcomics made by pre-teens, categories like the fedora-wearing “neckbeard” are widely-shared, and Reddit observations like the trite “deliciousness of bacon” meme are near-impossible to avoid. Although there are few quantitative measures that might confirm the observation, Redditisms seem ubiquitous in the broader cultural discourse to the point where they have begun to drown out localized cultural variation and diversity.

Whether this growing homogeneity seems worthy of lament will vary according to one’s taste. For those who thrive on novelty and originality, the Redditization of culture is a disaster, with cultural content devolving into an endless repetition of the same set of tired banalities. By contrast, those who enjoy familiarity and the sense of community that comes with shared expression will find comfort in a cultural world bound together by interlacing memes.

Such evenhandedness is harder to muster when it comes to Reddit’s mimetic influence on politics. Just as pictures of cats and affirmation of bacon circulate as memes, so, too, do ideology and political argument. Bits of reasoning are picked up and redeployed in debates by those who find them clarifying or whose presuppositions the arguments support. This circulation of ideas is particularly visible on Reddit where the same debates are had over and over again, each successive iteration providing participants with the opportunity to refine their arguments and try out whatever new ones they have picked up in the intervening period. The most appealing of these get then get upvoted, and the same meme-generating process that spews catch-phrases across the Internet manifests itself again, now with arguments as its object.

Were Reddit an ideologically-diverse site, the mimetic process might be understood as making dialectical progress, with different schools of thought co-evolving to the point where perhaps some reconciliation might be reached. In point of fact, however, the overwhelming majority of Redditors share a narrow set of ideological presuppositions—the result being a site that more closely resembles a crowd-sourced think tank generating ever more infectious arguments for dissemination to the masses.

Most of the ideologies promoted by Reddit are fairly benign—e.g., anti-interventionism, science-based skepticism, support for marijuana legalization, a distaste for intellectual property, and others. Reddit is not, as some have so glibly misdescribed it, a collection of “Ayn Rand Spark Notes,” but, rather, leans strongly towards economic populism, with large quantities of scorn regularly heaped on those who espouse even the slightest hint of Randianism or principled libertarianism. In more general terms, the Reddit Consensus lies somewhere on the leftward side of the Democratic Party with the average Redditor concerned about inequality, in favor of LGBT rights, and supportive of government spending and moderate redistribution.

What is troubling, though, is that such innocuous politics now coexist with a rising tide of racism that is slowly engulfing the site. Reddit has long been reactionary when it comes to the politics of race and gender, but typically that has taken the more-moderate form of the privileged person who petulantly drags his feet in resistance to the implication that he has done something wrong or is the beneficiary of injustice. Thus, while the average Redditor might have habitually bashed the /r/ShitRedditSays subreddit—a subforum whose subscribers call out problematic attitudes and speech—his attacks often seemed motivated more by a fear of one day being an ShitRedditSays target than an affirmation of sexist or racist tenets. Thus, while Redditors have disappointingly exhibited a greater ability to empathize with those who might be publicly embarrassed for holding oppressive opinions than those actually oppressed by such opinions, popular regard for the opinions themselves has always seemed limited to a few extremist subreddits.

Recently, however—and particularly on the subject of race—Reddit seems to be increasingly dominated by argument-memes that are explicitly anti-egalitarian with respect to identity. Whether it is the frequent discussions of “black crime,” KKK apologism (related: holocaust apologism), or just explicit bigotry, the comments on Reddit when race is brought up have come to resemble those found on explicitly white supremacist forums. Though difficult to quantify, it is a trend that many Redditors have noted—a proliferation of racism that appears to be less of an outside invasion than an internal mutation which, by means of mimesis, has spread like cancer throughout the body. Meanwhile, antiracists appear to have largely retreated from the most popular subreddits, abandoning the bulk of Reddit territory to their antagonists.

This process has been fueled by an active core of racist ideologues who devote significant time and attention to proselytizing on Reddit. These demagogues—who inhabit subreddits with charming names like /r/whiterights, /r/whitepride, and /r/niggers—seek to piggyback on Reddit’s anti-PC sentiment by passing off pernicious stereotypes as “I’m going to hell for this”-type jokes. And, of course, any time the white supremacist trope of “black crime” can be worked into a discussion, these extremists will be on hand to insert their propaganda.

These tactics are further augmented by “brigading”—a Reddit term for when an organized group of ideological Redditors swarm a given thread and vote up the comments they agree with and downvote those that contradict their views. Though the practice is officially outlawed on Reddit, it is difficult to prevent, and is proven in its effectiveness when it comes to swaying popular opinion. One recent study has shown that that people are more likely to upvote something that has already received an upvote—particularly when the subject pertains to politics, culture, and society. The implication is that brigading influences how people perceive a comment’s quality; by upvoting arguments en masse, ideological Redditors can make their views seem popular, reasonable, and moderate. At the same time, downvoting comments makes them less visible, effectively burying opposing views under ideologically-favorable material.

 

(A variant of this meme was once highly-upvoted on Reddit. Image Source)

 

While certain subreddits brigade spontaneously in knee-jerk outrage, the racists of Reddit have explicitly embraced the tactic as a means of popularizing their message. Indeed, the Reddit administrators recently banned /r/niggers for repeatedly and unapologetically engaging in the practice, while blocking some of the more vitriolic users from the site entirely. Whether the bans have been effective in curbing the racist brigades is unclear. However, even if effective, they seem too little, too late, with racist vote manipulation having apparently already established a grassroots racism that renders the practice superfluous.

Even more concerning is the possibility that the racist ideology on Reddit will be translated into violent practice. Reddit’s tendency to spawn outrage and malicious mobs is already well-documented. The medium is conducive to such behavior, spawning outrage through decontextualization. On Reddit, interested parties can present their side of the story as though it were the whole truth—a limited framing that obscures the complexity and mitigating factors that might exonerate the accused. In this way, complex human conflicts arising from legitimate differences are too often reduced to the sort of morality plays capable of inciting self-righteous mobs to seek vengeance. Combine this tendency with engrained racism and one cannot help but worry that IRL lynch mobs might emerge once again.

 

(Image source)

If this seems alarmist, consider the recent Reddit thread with the Stormfront-worthy title “Racist black kids bully white toddler” that had to shutter the comments section due to witch-hunting and the revelation of personal information. Or, the fact that when a video circulated of a (black) security guard tossing out a belligerent (black) woman and tasering her, Redditors heavily upvoted a post stating “If someone tells me this is black culture…. it needs to be eradicated,” before donating over $23,000 to better arm and equip him. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder, a white supremacist member of neighboring 4chan’s fringe-right /pol/ board hacked into Martin’s email in an effort to discredit the slain teen and exonerate his killer. These examples are just some of the more visible incidents and, while some are more clear-cut instances of violent white supremacism than others, they all lend substantial credence to the idea that an increasingly-racist Reddit might give rise to more organized racial harassment.

Beyond this terror, there is no small disappointment in witnessing the co-optation of what is otherwise a striking technological platform. On Reddit, millions of people with wildly different backgrounds come together to exchange ideas and debate politics as equals (insofar as one’s identity is protected). In this respect, it is an impressive realization of democratic communicative potential, the logical conclusion of the process that was first sparked by the invention of the printing press or even the written word. The fact that white supremacists have managed to subvert this emerging communicative space to further racial hatred is mortifying.

Yet the struggle for the future of Reddit—and, by extension, the public sphere—is not over. The political left has devoted much time and attention to critiquing Reddit, but it now needs to embrace the forum—to upvote early and often so as to sway the undecided away from the fringe right. At the same time, the comments section on Reddit provides the unique opportunity of reaching millions of people who would never think to pick up a copy of Dissent from a newsstand. The white supremacists are already capitalizing on this captive audience. It’s time the left pushed back.

 

~ Guest blogger Jesse Elias Spafford (@jessespafford) is a research assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University. He enjoys writing about power, politics, and culture.

 

Dark Arts: Stormfront, Lacan and White Supremacy

One of the most-viewed topics on the white supremacist forum Stormfront—second only to a collection of the tenets of National Socialism—is a catalogue of “ethnic crime.” To anyone who has spent enough time reading online comments, the popularity of the subject will not come as a surprise. Any time that a member of a minority group appears in the media as the perpetrator of a crime, a vocal core of commenters emerges to point out the offender’s ethnicity, using the observation as a springboard for introducing a slew of canned statistics regarding minority crime rates. These talking points have become a fixation, an expression of what racists consider to be a profound truth: that non-white individuals commit a disproportionate amount of crime.

 

(God Speed! by Edmund Leighton)

 

Of course, the demagogues will gleefully rebuff any accusations of racism, insisting that they are, in fact, scientists, courageously presenting facts to illuminate the social world. This is nonsense, but to see why requires shifting attention from what was mentioned to that which was omitted. While there is undeniably a correlation between ethnicity and crime, there are many such correlations that go miraculously overlooked in these discussions. Males, for example, commit an overwhelming proportion of all crime, but you will never see one of these ersatz sociologists taking the time to point out just how overrepresented men are in the criminal justice system. In other words, the move from observing criminality to discussing the perpetrator’s ethnicity is not an inevitable one, but, rather, a careful emphasis of one particular property among many. As such, the mention of race should not be mistaken for authentic sociological curiosity, as it is, in fact, a conscious ontological choice motivated by underlying racist ideology.

The comments display a relationship between evidence and mindset analogous to psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan’s case of the jealous husband. Lacan argues that the husband who, through persistent investigation, uncovers proof that his wife is cheating on him, exhibits pathological behavior despite being vindicated by the facts. His jealousy is a pathology because the suspicion predates the evidence: the husband would be driven to hunt for evidence of infidelity regardless of whether there was any reason for him to think that his wife was having an affair. Given this disconnect from the facts, the important question for Lacan becomes investigating what it is that motivates the husband’s jealousy. What underlying psychological features give rise to an ungrounded suspicion that seeks confirmation?

The commenters who sort crime statistics by race are akin to the jealous husband in that they are not driven to a theory by the evidence, but in search of evidence to support their theory. Crime stories act as Rorschach tests, revealing latent ideology through what is perceived and emphasized. In theft, liberals will see the consequences of poverty while anarchists see its rectification; in violent crime, gender theorists will notice the masculinity while racists will emphasize the ethnicity, an ontological choice reflecting both their pre-held conviction of racial superiority and their desire to spread that belief to others.

One must then ask the same question of the white supremacist that Lacan does of the jealous husband: since the racism of the former is not derived from evidence and, instead, pathologically seeks corroboration, then what is its origin? What draws a person to racial superiority if not the facts? To answer these questions, it is necessary to turn away from the empirical to face the cultural, shifting focus from the news-based Stormfront threads to one in which members post pictures of their favorite pieces of visual art. It is a popular discussion that, while dominated by a few contributors, contains a set of clear patterns with the potential to reveal the inner workings of the racist mind. In the aesthetic preferences of the white supremacists, the attraction of their ethos becomes understandable, the posted images reflecting the psychological rewards that lead people to adopt the ideology in the first place.

The first sort of recurrent image is the depiction of white culture. Included within this category are paintings of attractive Aryan women with blonde, braided hair; Germanic parents telling stories to children or teaching them how to garden; depictions of Roman and Greek architecture; and Rockwellian images of segregation-era civic life. These paintings and photographs capture a sense of cultural value, an aesthetic of existence historically associated with white skin and, in the racist mind, necessarily so. The images have been chosen because they depict what white supremacists are proud of: an intuitively noble way of living that they wish to claim for themselves via their phenotype.

Interspersed among these images are the landscapes. While it is easy to discount these paintings as unimaginative filler, they, too, shed light on the allure of racism. Notably they depict not merely nature, but its intersection with civilization, juxtaposing the untamed dangers of the wild with the safe havens of human habitation. Repeatedly featured are small hamlets nestled among imposing mountains, wagon trains voyaging across the desolate plains, and ships battered by raging seas. In The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton proposes that an aesthetic preference for safe environments would confer a distinct evolutionary advantage on those early humans who possessed it. While their philistine counterparts wandered off into dangerous territory, the aesthetes would be lured out of harm’s way, their survival allowing them to produce offspring who shared their disposition. In the landscapes favored by white supremacists, we see this evolutionary preference manifested. They are the scenes that Dutton argued humans are predisposed to find attractive, where the evidence of human presence implies safety in the face of inhospitable wilderness.

From such an evolutionary perspective, we can see how the landscapes introduce an element of aesthetic danger into the thread, a sense of peril that can’t help but inject itself into the depictions of “white culture.” The connection between the domestic scene of a white family and the little cottage in the valley is quite literal: it is hard to not imagine the former inhabiting the latter—and from there, a more metaphorical reading follows. It is not merely that white people are aboard the ship being battered by the ocean, but that “white culture” is this ship, a small safe haven in an otherwise dangerous and barbaric world. Taken together, the landscapes and cultural images convey the unmistakable impression that “white culture” is something to be protected, a bastion of civilization in an otherwise-savage environment.

This narrative finds its completion in the images of mythic heroism that permeate the thread. It is a category comprised of paintings featuring subjects risking personal annihilation in order to defend their way of life against foreign invaders: knights wish maidens farewell before riding off into battle, American colonists bravely fire shots at the British, and, most significantly, one army after the next charges into battle to slay the conspicuously dark hordes who threaten them. Here the danger facing those little ships and villages is made tangible, the destructive power of the ocean embodied in these evil armies who would raze every remnant of civilization if given the chance. The brave soldiers depicted are all that stands between the mindless violence of these savages and the safety and virtuosity of “white culture.”

That these images appeal to white supremacists does much to explain their radical politics. Here we see a group of people who have a strong attraction to the motif of the hero, the protector who defends a community from the forces of darkness and evil. For those seeking a sense of purpose and meaning, these white knights offers a particular vision of what it means to be a protagonist, one that easily overlays onto the contours of contemporary political life. One must merely identify a culture that seems besieged and position oneself in opposition to whatever is perceived as threatening. The only question is which group to affiliate with—a lacuna that, for the unimaginative, is most easily filled by the white supremacist narrative. It is the facile choice, one obvious in both its historical prominence and its childishly literal reading of metaphorical struggles between light and darkness. Rather than develop novel or sophisticated views of group conflict, white supremacy allows would-be heroes to follow the path of least mental resistance to the clash of civilizations already formulated in the pages of Mein Kampf or The Lord of the Rings.

This proposition—that hero envy underlies a significant portion of racist thought—is supported not merely by the far Right’s obsession with  “ethnic crime,” but also its general preoccupation with victimhood. That a dominant and heavily privileged group would take so seriously the minor incursions of “reverse racism” seems bizarre until it becomes clear that such “threats” are essential to sustaining the perception that white people are in danger and, thus, in need of heroes to boldly protect them. Absent such encroaching peril, white supremacists are at risk of being revealed for what they truly are: self-important shills who oppress others to advance the interests of an arbitrary phenotype.

To confront racism, then, we must pass over the endless empirical debates and, instead, lay siege to the mythos. We should contest that race is a significant category—why fight for one’s race rather than one’s socioeconomic class?—or even a stable one: who exactly counts as “white?” Watching white supremacists debate these questions gives the distinct impression of adversaries tugging at the threads that threaten to unravel an uneasy truce. More challenging, however, is creating alternative conceptions of heroism that are not built upon zero-sum conflict between different groups. At their best, antifa movements act as just such an outlet, allowing young people to channel their heroic aggression towards universalist causes. Unfortunately, for those vulnerable to the temptation of racism, the far Left probably holds little appeal. If we are to divert these individuals, we must develop something new, an alternative aesthetic that provides a sense of purpose without necessitating the subjugation of others. While this is a daunting challenge, it is perhaps the best chance we have to undermine ideologies of hate. As tempting as it is to try to dissuade racists by presenting them with statistics and evidence, to do so is to merely grapple with the fringes of their racist paranoia. Only through art can we eliminate the pathology at its source.

 

~ Jesse Elias Spafford, BA, is a recent graduate of Pomona College, and currently works as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.

Martin Luther King: Speech about South Africa

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I wanted to share one of King’s lesser known speeches, about South Africa.   In the speech, delivered at my institution Hunter College in 1965 (h/t colleague Larry Shore), King addresses media portrayals of Africa as ‘barbaric,’  the institution of white supremacy in South Africa, the connection between black Americans and Africa, and the hope of progressive political action between blacks and whites.

mlk

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Dakota Blue Harper)

In the opening of his 1965 speech, given on Human Rights Day (December 10), King addresses the common stereotype about Africa and calls out the system of white supremacy:

“Africa has been depicted for more than a century as the home of black cannibals and ignorant primitives. Despite volumes of facts contraverting this picture, the stereotype persists in books, motion pictures, and other media of communication. Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians. We are in an era in which the issue of human rights is the central question confronting all nations. In this complex struggle an obvious but little appreciated fact has gained attention-the large majority of the human race is non-white-yet it is that large majority which lives in hideous poverty. While millions enjoy an unexampled opulence in developed nations, ten thousand people die of hunger each and every day of the year in the undeveloped world. To assert white supremacy, to invoke white economic and military power, to maintain the status quo is to foster the danger of international race war . . . What does the South African Government contribute to this tense situation? These are the incendiary words of the South African philosophy spoken by its Prime Minister, Dr. Verwoerd: “We want to keep South Africa white. Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely, white domination, not ‘leadership’, not ‘guidance’, but control, supremacy.”

The South African Government to make the white supreme has had to reach into the past and revive the nightmarish ideology and practices of nazism. We are witnessing a recrudescence of the barbarism which murdered more humans than any war in history. In South Africa today, all opposition to white supremacy is condemned as communism, and in its name, due process is destroyed; a medieval segregation is organized with twentieth century efficiency and drive; a sophisticated form of slavery is imposed by a minority upon a majority which is kept in grinding poverty; the dignity of human personality is defiled; and world opinion is arrogantly defied.”

Few people celebrating King’s legacy today realize that in addition to being a civil right leader in the U.S., King also saw that struggle as connected to other struggles for human rights around the globe.  King was also presciently aware of the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and the system in South Africa, several decades before anti-apartheid became a popular political movement here.     King goes on the speech to highlight a Pan-African sensibility, explicitly drawing connections between the continent of Africa and, in the language of his day, “the American Negro.”  He goes on to extend the struggle to include whites as well:

“For the American Negro there is a special relationship with Africa. It is the land of his origin. It was despoiled by invaders; its culture was arrested and concealed to justify white supremacy. The American Negro’s ancestors were not only driven into slavery, but their links with their past were severed so that their servitude might be psychological as well as physical. In this period when the American Negro is giving moral leadership and inspiration to his own nation, he must find the resources to aid his suffering brothers in his ancestral homeland. Nor is this aid a one-way street. The civil rights movement in the United States has derived immense inspiration from the successful struggles of those Africans who have attained freedom in their own nation’s. The fact that black men govern States, are building democratic institutions, sit in world tribunals, and participate in global decision-making gives every Negro a needed sense of dignity.

In this effort, the American Negro will not be alone. As this meeting testifies, there are many white people who know that liberty is indivisible. Even more inspiring is the fact that in South Africa itself incredibly brave white people are risking their careers, their homes and their lives in the cause of human justice. Nor is this a plea to Negroes to fight on two fronts. The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world; it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength. Because this is true, when men of good will finally unite, they will be invincible.”

On this day, on what would have been Dr. King’s 82nd birthday, we still need those of good will to finally unite in the cause of human justice.

If you’d like to know more about the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and in South Africa, I recommend any of the books by George Frederickson on this subject, including the classic White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1982).    And, if you’d like to learn more about the connections between U.S. and South Africa, I encourage you to check out Larry Shore and Tami Gold’s documentary, RFK in the Land of Apartheid: Ripple of Hope.

Analysis: “The McVeigh Tapes”

Tonight, MSNBC aired “The McVeigh Tapes,” a television documentary about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Lou Michel, author of American Terrorist, recorded the interviews with McVeigh while he was in prison awaiting execution. The description of the piece from MSNBC’s site says:

“Drawing from 45 hours of never-before-released interview audiotapes recorded during McVeigh’s prison stay, the film reveals the bomber’s descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack and offers insight into how a decorated American soldier became a dangerous, anti-government terrorist.”

The show did much more of the former, focusing almost exclusively on “descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack” and very little on “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist.  The 2-hour news show was a standard re-enactment of the events leading up to the attack.   There were two elements to the story that made it cable-television-worthy: 1) the audio tapes and 2) the computer graphics in which an actor played Tim McVeigh, and then graphic artists altered the face to look more or less like McVeigh.   Personally, I found the computer graphics distracting (my partner said “it’s working for me,” so clearly, people disagree on how effective these were).   The really compelling story at the heart of this, though, was the juxtaposition of McVeigh’s cold, emotionless voice recounting his actions set against the horrific damage done to the victims, many of them children.   People today in Oklahoma City continue to walk through the pain that he left in their lives, either through injuries that linger or through the grief they continue to carry for loved ones.   For his part, the McVeigh in the tapes is beyond remorseless, he’s “content and peaceful” that he has succeeded in carrying out his plot to take as many people with him as possible in his “state-assisted suicide.”

The events of April 19, 1995 are methodically retold here with little that’s actually new.  There is an enormous amount of detail on how they (McVeigh and his accomplice Nichols) built the bomb inside the rented Ryder truck, so much detail in fact, that I winced while listening to it wondering if it were offering a blueprint for others watching the show.  This reenactment is serviceable enough, as such things go, but not really compelling television.  The reason that I, and I suspect millions of others, tuned in was for the second part of the tease – the “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist bit.   This is where viewers with any interest in the racial ideology that motivated McVeigh will be disappointed because it is a story completely denuded of any discussion of race.

At the time of the bombing, Timothy McVeigh was not officially a member of any white supremacist group.  Yet, he was radicalized by his reading of The Turner Diaries, a dystopian white supremacist novel written by William Pierce under the pseudonym “Andrew McDonald.”  The Turner Diaries depicts a violent revolution and race war, that leads to the elimination of all Jews, non-whites and ‘white race traitors.’   In the week after the Oklahoma City bombing, an article in The New York Times called the novel “explicitly racist and anti-Semitic.”  The article in The New York Times went on to note that the Oklahoma City bombing had been “foretold” in this “Bible of the Extreme Right.” One of the central ideas in The Turner Diaries and in white supremacist ideology is the equivalency of “government” with “Jewish interests,” or simply “Jews.”    In fact, in this rhetoric the federal government is often referred to as “Z.O.G.” which stands for “Zionist Occupied Government.”  The language about “anti-government” in white supremacist rhetoric is almost always code for “anti-Jewish.”  A key theme in this racial ideology is that “Z.O.G.” is trying to ruin the white race by encouraging “race-mixing” (marriage and children across racial lines).

The importance of this text to McVeigh’s radicalization as a white supremacist terrorist cannot be underestimated.  According to reports at the time and from monitoring organization, ADL, in the days before the bombing, McVeigh mailed a letter to his sister warning that “something big is going to happen,” and sent her an envelop with clippings from The Turner Diaries. When she learned of her brother’s arrest in connection with the bombing, McVeigh’s sister burned the clippings.   F.B.I. agents also found a copy of a passage from The Turner Diaries in the car McVeigh drove on the day of the bombing.  And, during the bombing trial, several of McVeigh’s friends testified that he had sent them copies of Pierce’s novel with notes encouraging them to read it. Testimony also showed that McVeigh sold The Turner Diaries and Hunter, Pierce’s follow-up to The Turner Diaries, at weekend gun shows.  One of the chief reasons McVeigh went from being an American soldier to a terrorist is because he read The Turner Diaries.

So, if we viewers were interested in understanding “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist, it seems that at least some discussion of The Turner Diaries and the white supremacist ideology behind it would be in order.   Not so in “The McVeigh Tapes,” In the 2-hour show, there’s one glimpse of the computer-graphic-McVeigh sitting on his bunk while in the army reading a copy of The Turner Diaries, yet no mention at all of race or antisemitism or white supremacy.    All descriptors of McVeigh’s ideology are scripted as “his anti-government views,” a description that is misleading for the half-truth it tells.

This omission of any discussion of race is so systematic and total throughout the 2-hours of the film that it must be intentional.  The question is why?  Why intentionally leave out this important element in understanding how McVeigh became a terrorist?

The best answer I (and those in discussion on Twitter hashtag #OKC) came up with is that MSNBC has a primarily white audience that is uncomfortable with discussions of race, racism, antisemitism or white supremacy.  While perfectly capable of listening to a discussion about “anti-government views,” the explicit, straightforward discussion of the racial ideology that animated McVeigh and inspired his horrific act is too much for us as a nation.  As @Sonyers put this to me: “A lot of people don’t have the courage to see the reality of race. It’s ugly and powerful.” I guess that’s true.  It’s a shame though.  We could understand more if we had an analysis that included a critical understanding of race. Specifically, we could understand more – not less -if we had an analysis of the racial ideology of The Turner Diaries how it “foretold” the Oklahoma City bombing.

What “The McVeigh Tapes,” leaves us with is a description of the excruciating detail of each minute leading up to that moment on April 19th, 1995 but almost no analysis of what would prompt a young, white, man to target a federal building with a daycare center in it, or why so many would rally today, in 2010, to “celebrate” that heinous act fifteen years ago.

Global Racial Inequality Keeps Children Away From School

Around the world, children from ethnic, racial and linguistic minorities are being left behind in the quest for universal education, according to Lauren Feeney, multimedia producer for PBS’s documentary television series, Wide Angle.   Feeney explains that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for international development agreed to at the turn of the millennium, call for universal primary education by 2015.  While some progress has been made towards that goal in the last decade — today, nearly 90 percent of children are enrolled in primary school, compared to 85 percent in 2000.

Even as that is a victory to celebrate, there remain 75 million children are still out of school; and of those, the majority are children from racial and ethnic minority groups.  Although the U.N. doesn’t track progress based on racial or ethnic criteria, but a new report from Minority Rights Group International estimates that between 50 and 70 percent of out of school children are from minority and indigenous populations.

This kind of racial inequality exists around the globe, in Latin America, in Australia, in Africa, in India and in Europe.  As Joe wrote here recently, the treatment of Roma in Europe is one that is steeped in racism that few are willing to face.  Indeed, speaking out about their treatment prompted crowds to boo pop-icon Madonna for speaking out in support of them.  When it comes to the treatment of the Roma, and how Roma children are doing meeting the Millennium Development Goals, it’s difficult to tell.   Fenney writes that most reports on the Millennium Development Goals don’t bother to track progress in highly developed countries such as those in the European Union, which Romania joined in 2007. But Snjezana Bokulic, the Minority Rights Group International program officer for Europe, says that conditions for the Roma minority are “comparable to sub-Saharan Africa,” so, while European countries are likely to surpass most of the goals, “a segment of the population will be left out.” As for the goal of universal primary education, only 31 percent of Roma in Romania complete primary school, and Roma comprise between 2 and 10 percent of the population (depending on who’s counting), so the goal is unlikely to be met. “It’s an issue of mathematics,” says Bokulic.

Extrapolating from the non-data-collection on Roma in Europe, I assume that these reports are not being collected on indigenous and racial/ethnic minority groups here in the U.S. either.  That would be a worthy research project for someone to do is find out what percentage of indigenous and migrant workers children are enrolled in school.

In a rather striking example of what happens when you fail to take into account intersections of race, class and gender, the Millennium Development Goals include a specific provision calling for an end to gender disparity at all levels of education, but there is no similar targeting of disparity based on racial or ethnic difference. One observer from the Minority Rights Group calls this a “glaring omission.”  Maurice Bryan, who contributed the chapter on Latin America to the Minority Rights Group International report, says that no one realized it at the time, and goes on to say this:

“People didn’t used to think that you should pay special attention to women but once they realized that it was necessary, there has been progress on the gender gap. Now the racial gap is the new kid on the block.”

I found that a remarkable quote.  While it’s pointless to try and say which is “more” or “less” necessary – it’s both and – I was just found it interesting that at least according to Millennium Goals the idea of addressing of gender is more established than the idea of addressing racism and inequality.  If it’s still the case that 50-70 percent of the world’s children who are not in school are from ethnic or indigenous populations, then it seems long overdue to start addressing this form of inequality.

Rachel Maddow: Correcting the Record on Pat’s Racist Rant

Rachel Maddow took a few minutes at the end of last night’s show to correct the record on Pat Buchanan’s racist rant about ‘white men built this nation.’ In case you missed it, here’s what she said (6:58):

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

I think she did a pretty good job on this. She gets bonus points from me for the line about affirmative action being necessary “so that we as a country don’t end up sealing in place forever a white supremacist society, created by and defined by segregation and Jim Crow.” What do you think about her rebuttal?

Race, Racism & White Supremacy: Link Roundup

Here are some interesting links on race, racism and white supremacy. The blogosphere seems to be heating up on some of these issues. There is no shortage of racism material to write on!

The Holocaust Museum Attack and Cyberhate

  • Rinku Sen writes about The White Supremacist in All of Us at the Huffington Post.  Sen criticizes the discussion of the Holocaust Museum shooting has boiled down to the idea that racism is an intentional, violent act of a lone crazy white man.  She writes “Collectively, we bemoan the backwardness of ‘some’ people before we move on, thinking of racism as isolated extremism.”
  • David Niewert writes at Crooks and Liars about the infiltration of the army by neo-nazis, first reported by Salon this week.  Jim Burroway at Box Turtle points out the irony of a military that is happy to include white supremacists but not openly LGBT members.
  • Jesse Walker thinks the threat of right-wing terror has been blown out of proportion.
  • Joshua Holland at Alternet has some probing thoughts on the Eliminationist (that is, killing) Mindset of many on the racist right.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor

  • Transgriot calls out Pat Buchanan – and others of the “vanilla privileged” class –  for their treatment of Sotomayor.

Education

  • Over at DailyKos, Tristero 312 has a good analysis of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) charges at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that argue the educational policies of school “turnarounds,” one of the “Renaissance 2010″ policies, is discriminatory, especially for black teachers.

Demography

  • Over at Asian-Nation, there is an interesting analysis of some U.S. demographic data showing that among Asian-Indian, Chinese, and Korean Americans, there is a significant gender imbalance among children, boys being more common than girls, as in some Asian countries—apparently mainly for Asian immigrant couples in which both spouses are foreign-born.

Pop Culture

Idiocy in America

  • And, though not online and not exactly on racism issues, there is the new book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce. The book is uneven, full of ranting on conservatives like Limbaugh (who deserve it), but the general points are quite accurate about stupidity becoming a virtue. Here is his response to a question in an interview: “With the election of President Obama, is Idiot America coming to an end? Or, will there always be a place for idiocy in America?” [Pierce answers]: Look at the political opposition to President Obama. “Socialist!” “Fascist!” “Coming to get your guns.” Hysteria from the hucksters of Idiot America is still at high-tide. People are killing other people and specifically attributing their action to imaginary oppression stoked by radio talk-show stars and television pundits.

Black Masculinity

White Prof, White Pride

19-griffincoverToday’s Inside Higher Ed includes an article about Robert S. Griffin, a tenured professor who has taught education classes at the University of Vermont for nearly 40 years and written extensively and sympathetically about white nationalism and white supremacy.  Griffin’s own (non-University) website includes a links page to a number of white nationalist and white supremacist organizations and websites, including David Duke’s website and Stormfront: White Pride Worldwide (both of whom I discuss at length in Cyber Racism). The image included here is of Griffin appearing on a 2006 cover of American Renaissance (image used without permission, from here).   The Southern Poverty Law Center includes Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance as one of the four leading proponents of “academic racism.” Here’s what the SPLC has to say:

Jared Taylor, the man who heads the New Century Foundation and edits its American Renaissance magazine, presents himself as a cosmopolitan, open-minded thinker not afraid to take on the taboos of his time without stooping to racial epithets and the like. But, in fact, he is a man who promotes the “clear conception of the United States as a nation ruled by and for whites,” …

This is the pose that Griffin has adopted as well, that of the “cosmopolitan, open-minded thinker not afraid to take on taboos.”

In his 2006 article called, “A Knock on the Door: Writing for AR  – Coming out of the closet is not always easy,” that accompanies the cover image above, Griffin reflects on the fallout from his initial experience of writing for American Renaissance and the mainstream press that followed it.  By likening this writing to ‘coming out of the closet,’ Griffin acknowledges the illicit nature of his collaboration with the magazine but this only fuels his certitude about his views.

Griffin mainly uses the article to quote himself being quoted.  The crux of his argument boils down to calling him a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist or a hatemonger is mere “namecalling and mudslinging.” Furthermore, Griffin claims that he is simply engaging in “ethnic pride,” and attempts to call him to task for this are part of a “double standard” in which “pride and self-determination” are good for minority folks, “but the very same things in white people are bad.”  He then quotes his own attempt at humor in an interview:

“The late comedian Lenny Bruce told a joke about a guy who, when caught in the act of cheating by his wife, says to her, ‘Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?’ I’d like to think that in matters of race more and more white people are getting past the Orwellian newspeak that has been coming at them for decades and starting to look hard at reality for themselves. That is what I’m doing.”

And then, Griffin ends on a self-congratulatory note:

“I was beginning to stand up for myself — and my race. Not bad.”

The Inside Higher Ed article interviews Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center, who says:

“no mystery” in her mind that Griffin is a neo-Nazi. “It’s an amazing thing to see a tenured professor at a serious university writing a fawning biography of a neo-Nazi nut — just shocking,” she said.

Beirich urged The University of Vermont to investigate the professor’s classroom activities and condemn his work.  Yet, the university as an institution and at least one colleague of Griffin’s are standing by him and defending his views as bringing “a perspective to multicultural issues that is different from what dominates the field.”

The problem here, in my view, with people who are appalled by Griffin’s views — and they are appalling — is that they the standard white liberal response is insufficient to to the task because it only concedes Griffin’s premise.   Calling him a “neo-Nazi” allows Griffin to continue to claim the high ground in this debate and assert that he is “interested in ideas” while others are merely engaged in name-calling.   Similarly, attempts to discredit his assertions of ethnic pride within the context of multiculturalism-absent-an-analysis-of-power is equally fraught.   In a multi-vocal world where “all voices” are valued equally, there is no basis for critiquing white pride.

The key that’s missing in this debate is an analysis of power and white privilege, and these have everything to do with knowledge.   Epistemologies of race, that is, how we know what we say we know about race and racism, are rooted in profoundly different experiences for whites and people of color living in a social context of racial inequality.  Within such a context, some people experience the constant drumbeat of racism as part of their everyday life,  while others enjoy the privilege  of ignoring race and racism on a daily basis. The danger in views like those of Griffin’s  is in the pernicious way that his claims to “knowledge” challenge important values that are politically hard won, values such as racial equality.

White Supremacy, Racism, and the Obama Administration, Pt.2

These are the final two provocative theses from Clarence J. Munford. He is Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. Among his books are Race and Civilization: Rebirth of Black Centrality (Africa World Press 2001) and American Crucible: Black Enslavement, White Capitalism and Imperial Globalization (Africa World Press forthcoming, June 2009).

THESIS THREE

At this moment antiracists and other progressives need be circumspect in our criticism of the agenda and policies of the Obama administration (Creative Commons License photo credit: couturiere7 ). First, because it is figuratively the only game in play. Second, because bad-tempered faultfinding would alienate nearly the entire African American community, still enthralled as it is in the historic symbolism and adulation of a black presidency in the “world’s most powerful country.” Third, because the only likely alternative to Barack Obama to emerge from the 2012 election will be the neo-Nazi, closet-KKK types and religious fundamentalists nesting under the Republican Party “tent.”

Yet we would be remiss in our duty if we failed to offer constructive critique that fosters progressive social reform. For instance, was the decision to boycott the United Nations antiracism conference in April 2009 indicative of the administration’s true stripes? Was the shunning – to paraphrase Shakespeare – a whiff of something rotten in Washington, DC’s Denmark? Must U.S. foreign policy remain forever hostage to Israeli hawks? America’s absence from the Geneva conference had even the Congressional Black Caucus – Obama’s most rock-solid legislative ally – wondering. The concept of modernization of the oppression of African Americans aids comprehension. It suggests that second class citizenship resists cosmetic changes regardless of the personnel in the White House.

During his “First Hundred Days” Obama’s “crisis management” aimed to reduce unemployment through job creation. His stimulus program included funds and measures to lessen mortgage foreclosures. Threatened homeowners were promised mortgage renegotiation along more favorable terms. At least as talking points, the government put environmental improvement, alternative energy and strategic raw materials savings on the table. Cooperation between the federal government, organized labor and the private sector is seen as a kind of magic wand. Sought is equilibrium between the national economy and the basic components of civil society.

Meanwhile corporate capital continues to manipulate the organs of state to distribute the national income in ways favorable to itself. Obama has set sights on reviving the stock market and talks in populist terms of affordable health care (but only in the dubious insurance scheme, not in the universal, single-payer form) in order to maintain political capital. The challenge is to speed the capitalist periodical cycle into a recovery phase while juggling big bonuses at firms that have swallowed billions of bailout dollars, auto industry meltdown, the AIG fiasco and growing demands for nationalization of the country’s most dysfunctional banks.

The depression has exposed widespread immiseration that can no longer be “spin”-glossed away by the mouthpieces of U.S.-dominated raciated global supremacy. More than merely turning the country around economically, progressives want Obama to face up to the system’s all-round failure to meet human needs. Job opportunities are unfilled due to unskilled or untrained applicants, while growing millions are being laid off. And what spooks the powers-that-be is the fact that now the jobless are not just blacks and Hispanics, but so-called mainstream whites as well. Grappling with neglected human needs, progressive forces demand from Obama more than just swift, but temporary, stimuli. They call for staunch and permanent government intervention. Only the state can harmonize mass employment, the need for trained workers and social needs. Barack Obama’s program looks to quicken the job market through health insurance spending, home mortgage assistance and infrastructure repairs and initiatives.

Yet it is a matter of debate whether the reformers in Obama’s corner realize that in contemporary racist capitalism mass unemployment (twice as heavy among blacks than among whites) is at once conjunctural and structural. It is a product of the periodical cycle and of deindustrialization in favor of service industries, of “off-shoring,” and of swelling social emphasis on communications-electronics. At issue are fundamental processes of capital accumulation. The Obama administration has grounds to expect jobs to be created through new investments, thus justifying all the talks of a “New New Deal.” But large-scale devalorization of much black male labor power has been long underway before the present economic bubble burst. That devalorization demonstrates that capital accumulation never has as its goal the protection or creation of jobs.

Capitalists accumulate, expand, rationalize and modernize enterprises in order to garner high profits. This generates schizophrenia for the Obama stimulus. On one hand, to mollify his electorate and pay political IOUs, the president must save homes and put people to work through health, energy, regulatory and infrastructure measures. On the other hand, as the administrator of state capitalism, he must protect and revivify the existing system of white supremacist capitalism. Once troubled enterprises are “stress-tested,” trimmed, modernized and regulated, once they are ready to yield stable high profits, they must be returned to the private sector free of federal government sway. On behalf of private capitalists the administration is mandated to manage, invest taxpayer dollars, partially nationalize and break UAW labor contracts. Such is the real meaning of rationalization, efficiency and higher productivity under racist capitalism. Success for this agenda would be long-term elimination of work places, not more jobs. As currently projected, the Obama stimulus and regulation of financial institutions down the road will shrink the demand for living labor power.

To keep this from happening, progressives and antiracists must inject radical elixir in the Obama White House. That is the only way to expand well-paid, secure employment, particularly for the sorely-tried African American community. Programming, projections, French-style dirigiste planning for express rail links, energy independence and other “leftist” concepts not heard in Washington, DC since the 1930s and the New Deal, have now become common currency inside the Beltway. These are manifestations of capitalist reformist jitters. Short of an impact by a strong radical public, they most definitely are not the “transformative” harbingers of an equitable, antiracist society designed to meet the needs of all of its citizens that many first-time voters thought they heard in the Obama campaign rhetoric. The president wants to intensify the role of the federal government merely enough to enliven the economy. But why must the affair stop there? What if a broad neo-Abolitionist coalition of blacks, browns and antiracist whites can be forged in time to intervene? Its pressure could induce Americans to realize that it is not necessary to bribe the corporate and financial moguls with bailouts, bonuses, interest and profits to obtain the necessities of life.

THESIS FOUR

Global white supremacy would lose what remains of its integral character without the seemingly limitless malleability of second class citizenship in the USA coupled with ongoing modernization of oppression of the black world as a whole. Though nearly five hundred years old, the African Diaspora in the Americas has yet to experience true liberation. What has been endured in the last two hundred years is a series of refurbishments of bondage, disguised as “emancipations.” Each modernization has occurred at a critical turning point in history when the system of black servitude was in crisis and seemed threatened with collapse. The Obama administration appears to be one such turning point.

Hitherto each revamp has involved some great confrontation like the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Each regeneration has saved the day for white supremacy by discarding the unnecessary frills of white domination (i.e., the “petty apartheids”), while rescuing the essentials of black subjugation. Each update has revealed the bitter truth that social equality and racially proportionate economic parity can never be accomplished without breaking the back of white supremacy. The staged incremental progress African Americans are alleged to have benefited from in the course of the twentieth century, culminating in the election of Barack Obama, is, in fact, contingency-rooted, episodic streamlining of the forms of second-class citizenship. The kernel of black oppression has remained stable, regardless of the election of black officials, and regardless of leeway for civil rights, intermarriage, integrated housing, voting rights and limited job opportunities. The notion of modernization of second-class citizenship for African Americans is an elaboration and articulation of the fundamental thesis of a series of modernizations of enslavement experienced in all parts of the black world during the last half-millennium.

Nonetheless, there is a serious alternative to white supremacist capitalist society. That vision postulates an end to global white supremacy, the heart of global capitalism. It requires a concerted political effort by progressive forces to build an economy that binds government control of the commanding heights of the economy with small private enterprises and community firms in an organic fashion. In order to qualify as truly post-racist, America would have to install a human and constitutional rights system in place of the travesty we now endure. It would have to impose social equality, evenhanded justice and socioeconomic parity. Black political empowerment proportionate to population percentage would have to be enshrined in the Constitution. Policy would have to ensure “equality of results” for the black community and other racialized minorities.

White Supremacy, Racism and the Obama Administration, Pt.1

These are the first two theses of four from the distinguished international scholar of racial matters, Clarence J. Munford. The next two will be posted tomorrow.

THESIS ONE

The original (so-called primitive) capital accumulation – the wealth that enabled Western civilization to erect its global domination – was actually an accumulation of enslaved African human beings. Having decimated the indigenous Amerindians in the Caribbean, Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, the white conquerors turned to Africa for the means to establish sway over the Western Hemisphere.

Nowadays the “free world’s” lighthouse sits in Washington, DC, an acknowledged fact internationally. Less avowed is the brute fact that the chief agency by which European civilization appropriated and incorporated the vast territory north of the Rio Grande, and established the United States of America, was the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Modern capitalism in the Western Hemisphere is the child of racialized black enslavement. Centuries of chattel bondage conditioned the formation of the African American race, reinforced by post-slavery discrimination, segregation and second-class citizenship. These are social relations, rules dictated to persons and communities. Social relations, mediated in history, outweighed biological reproduction in creating America’s black “minority race.”

Despite a rather common heritage of material culture, black folks’ enslaved ancestors came from many different ethnic groups and spoke many different tongues. The boundaries of the plantations ignored these ethnic divisions. When the time came for procreation, the will of the slaveholder and the limits of the plantation regulated sexual intercourse. Plantation endogamy smashed pristine ethnicity. Most couplings were within the same plantation or neighboring ones – no matter that Mbundu had to mate with Ewe, Wolof with Ibo, Yoruba with Fon… Meanwhile the sexual rampages of slaveholders and overseers injected a Caucasian strain in all but a fifth of African Americans. For a long time slaveholders were not minded to balance the gender ratio among slaves. Enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619. Not until the 1840s were there as many black women as there were black men in the United States. America’s truest “melting pot” was stirred of transplanted Africans, a unique new people smelted in slavery’s crucible.

The social composition and profile of black America changed radically in the first half of the twentieth century. From the Great Migration (ca. 1915-1919) to the deindustrializing 1970s, the prominent new stratum was urban industrial workers. Black folk became predominately city folk. Nevertheless, the black community remained subservient to the white citizenry. The autoworker as much as the sleeping car porter, the preacher as much as the entertainer, each one of the now ghettoized African Americans was slotted somehow or other in the social hierarchy in a way compatible with the white man’s interests. Transformed by waves of migration and metropolitan overcrowding, black America was prescribed a role to play that was really the same old role in new costume. Its function in the social division of labor was unambiguous. There is nothing equivocal about that black “underclass” which serves as an elastic pool of cheap reserve labor, portions of which are destined for lifelong joblessness.

Over the last thirty years or so, large numbers of African Americans have moved to the suburbs. Decaying city cores have been abandoned to growing concentrations of black and Latino paupers, the “underclass” and the homeless. Many city cores are being gentrified, exiling even these desperate unfortunates. Ironically, even latter-day suburbanization is compelled to fit the national mold of black-white residential apartheid. Black suburbanization proceeds on the basis of black resegregation. Chunks of the inner city ghetto are dispersed as all-black pockets around the wider area. The ghetto does not evaporate; it multiplies with smaller offshoots hiving off. Residential apartheid is alive and well, now also living in the suburbs.

Even more insidious is the bond between the prison industrial system and economic revalorization. In so far as black “underclass” job seekers find no employers, they are excluded from the national market for commodity labor power. This particular phenomenon long predates the current employment crash precipitated by the capitalist recession of 2007-2009, and will long post-date it. Economically, anything that for whatever reason has no purchaser, has no price. Price is the money form of value. Without a price, an object, or in this case a human capacity, becomes in effect valueless. During the last forty years, thousands of black males’ ability to work has been stripped of a price, unsellable on the labor market and thus value-less in a strict economic sense. In the eyes of white supremacist capital, these men, and increasingly some black women too, become revalored (value restored) only when they are put to work in jail. This is revalorization through mass incarceration and the prison economy. What takes place in the prison industrial complex has been termed mystifyingly “intra-systemal commoditization of unfree labor.” The terms mean merely that in our prisons today labor power, which in the outside world appears on the market as a commodity and is sold for a price (wages), is being extracted from inmates – often involuntarily – at or well below the minimum wage standard. From shore to shore America’s cellblock inmates are disproportionately black. This practice is a giant step towards reviving the convict lease-labor system of Jim Crow vintage. The United States sports the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Continue reading…